Mark 8:27-30

THE GREAT DISCOVERY

Mk. 8:27-30

Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the road he asked his disciples a question. “Who,” he said to them, “do men say that I am?” They said to him, “Some say, John the Baptizer; others say, Elijah; others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “You–who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are God’s Anointed One.” And he insisted that they should tell no man about him.

Caesarea Philippi was outside Galilee altogether. It was not in the territory of Herod, but in the territory of Philip. It was a town with an amazing history. In the oldest days it was called Balinas, for it had once been a great centre of the worship of Baal. To this day it is called Banias, which is a form of Panias. It is so called because up on the hillside there was a cavern which was said to be the birthplace of the Greek God, Pan, the god of nature. From a cave in the hillside gushed forth a stream which was held to be the source of the River Jordan. Farther up on the hillside rose a gleaming temple of white marble which Philip had built to the godhead of Caesar, the Roman Emperor, the ruler of the world, who was regarded as a god.

It is an amazing thing that it was here of all places that Peter saw in a homeless Galilaean carpenter the Son of God. The ancient religion of Palestine was in the air, and the memories of Baal clustered around. The gods of classical Greece brooded over the place, and no doubt men heard the pipes of Pan and caught a glimpse of the woodland nymphs. The Jordan would bring back to memory episode after episode in the history of Israel and the conquest of the land. And clear in the eastern sun gleamed and glinted the marble of the holy place which reminded all men that Caesar was a god. There, of all places, as it were against the background of all religions and all history, Peter discovered that a wandering teacher from Nazareth, who was heading for a cross, was the Son of God. There is hardly anything in all the gospel story which shows the sheer force of the personality of Jesus as does this incident. It comes in the very middle of Mark’s gospel and it does so designedly. for it comes at the gospel’s peak moment. tn one way at least this moment was the crisis of Jesus’ life. Whatever his disciples might be thinking, he knew for certain that ahead lay an inescapable cross. Things could not go on much longer. The opposition was gathering itself to strike. The problem confronting Jesus was this–had he had any effect at all? Had he achieved anything? Or, to put it another way, had anyone discovered who he really was? If he had lived and taught and moved amongst men and no one had glimpsed God in him, then all his work had gone for nothing. There was only one way he could leave a message with men and that was to write it on some man’s heart.

So, in this moment, Jesus put all things to the test. He asked his disciples what men were saying about him, and he heard from them the popular rumours and reports. Then came a breathless silence and he put the question which meant so much, “Who do you say that I am?” And suddenly Peter realized what he had always known deep down in his heart. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God. And with that answer Jesus knew that he had not failed.

Now we come to a question which has been half-put and half-answered more than once before, but which now must be answered in detail or the whole gospel story is not fully intelligible. No sooner had Peter made this discovery than Jesus told him he must tell no man of it. Why? Because, first and foremost, Jesus had to teach Peter and the others what Messiahship really meant. To understand the task that Jesus had in hand and to understand the real meaning of this necessity, we have to enquire at some length what the Messianic ideas of the time of Jesus really were.

THE JEWISH IDEAS OF THE MESSIAH

Throughout all their existence the Jews never forgot that they were in a very special sense God’s chosen people. Because of that, they naturally looked to a very special place in the world. In the early days they looked forward to achieving that position by what we might call natural means. They always regarded the greatest days in their history as the days of David; and they dreamed of a day when there would arise another king of David’s line, a king who would make them great in righteousness and in power. (Isa.9:7; Isa.11:1; Jer.22:4; Jer.23:5; Jer.30:9.)

But as time went on it came to be pitilessly clear that this dreamed-of greatness would never be achieved by natural means. The ten tribes were carried off to Assyria and lost forever. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jews away captive. Then came the Persians as their masters; then the Greeks; then the Romans. So far from knowing anything like dominion, for centuries the Jews never even knew what it was to be completely free and independent.

So another line of thought grew up. It is true that the idea of a great king of David’s line never entirely vanished and was always intertwined in some way with their thought; but more and more they began to dream of a day when God would intervene in history and achieve by supernatural means that which natural means could never achieve. They looked for divine power to do what human power was helpless to do.

In between the Testaments were written a whole flood of books which were dreams and forecasts of this new age and the intervention of God. As a class they are called Apocalypses. The word literally means unveilings. These books were meant to be unveilings of the future. It is to them that we must turn to find out what the Jews believed in the time of Jesus about the Messiah and the work of the Messiah and the new age. It is against their dreams that we must set the dream of Jesus.

In these books certain basic ideas occur. We follow here the classification of these ideas given by Schurer, who wrote A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.

(i) Before the Messiah came there would be a time of terrible tribulation. There would be a Messianic travail. It would be the birth-pangs of a new age. Every conceivable terror would burst upon the world; every standard of honour and decency would be torn down; the world would become a physical and moral chaos.

“And honour shall be turned into shame, And strength humiliated into contempt, And probity destroyed, And beauty shall become ugliness… And envy shall rise in those who had not thought aught of themselves, And passion shall seize him that is peaceful, And many shall be stirred up in anger to injure many, And they shall rouse up armies in order to shed blood, And in the end they shall perish together with them.” (2 Baruch 27.)

There would be, “quakings of places, tumult of peoples, schemings of nations, confusion of leaders, disquietude of princes.” (4 Ezra 9: 3.)

“From heaven shall fall fiery words down to the earth. Lights shall come, bright and great, flashing into the midst of men; and earth, the universal mother, shall shake in these days at the hand of the Eternal. And the fishes of the sea and the beasts of the earth and the countless tribes of flying things and all the souls of men and every sea shall shudder at the presence of the Eternal and there shall be panic. And the towering mountain peaks and the hiEs of the giants he shall rend, and the murky abyss shall be visible to all. And the high ravines in the lofty mountains shall be full of dead bodies and rocks shall flow with blood and each torrent shall flood the plain…. And God shall judge all with war and sword, and there shall be brimstone from heaven, yea stones and rain and hail incessant and grievous. And death shall be upon the four-footed beasts…. Yea the land itself shall drink of the blood of the perishing and beasts shall eat their fill of flesh.” (The Sibylline Oracles 3: 363 ff.)

The Mishnah enumerates as signs that the coming of the Messiah is near,

“That arrogance increases, ambition shoots up, that the vine yields fruit yet wine is dear. The government turns to heresy. There is no instruction. the synagogue is devoted to lewdness. Galilee is destroyed, Gablan laid waste. The inhabitants of a district go from city to city without finding compassion. The wisdom of the learned is hated, the godly despised, truth is absent. Boys insult old men, old men stand in the presence of children. The son depreciates the father, the daughter rebels against the mother, the daughter-in-law against the mother-in-law. A man’s enemies are his house-fellows.”

The time which preceded the coming of the Messiah was to be a time when the world was torn in pieces and every bond relaxed. The physical and the moral order would collapse.

(ii) Into this chaos there would come Elijah as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah. He was to heal the breaches and bring order into the chaos to prepare the way for the Messiah. in particular he was to mend disputes. In fact the Jewish oral law laid it down that money and property whose ownership was disputed, or anything found whose owner was unknown, must wait “till Elijah comes.” When Elijah came the Messiah would not be far behind.

(iii) Then there would enter the Messiah. The word Messiah and the word Christ mean the same thing. Messiah is the Hebrew and Christ is the Greek for the Anointed One. A king was made king by anointing and the Messiah was God’s Anointed King. It is important to remember that Christ is not a name; it is a title. Sometimes the Messiah was thought of as a king of David’s line, but more often he was thought of as a great, super-human figure crashing into history to remake the world and in the end to vindicate God’s people.

(iv) The nations would ally themselves and gather themselves together against the champion of God.

“The kings of the nations shall throw themselves against this land bringing retribution on themselves. They shall seek to ravage the shrine of the mighty God and of the noblest men whensoever they come to the land. In a ring round the city the accursed kings shall place each one his throne with his infidel people by him. And then with a mighty voice God shall speak unto all the undisciplined, empty-minded people and judgment shall come upon them from the mighty God, and all shall perish at the hand of the Eternal.” (Sibylline Oracles 3: 363-372.)

“It shall be that when all the nations hear his (the Messiah’s) voice, every man shall leave his own land and the warfare they have one against the other, and an innumerable multitude shall be gathered together desiring to fight against him.” (4 Ezra 13: 33-35.)

(v) The result would be the total destruction of these hostile powers. Philo said that the Messiah would “take the field and make war and destroy great and populous nations.”

“He shall reprove them for their ungodliness, Rebuke them for their unrighteousness, Reproach them to their faces with their treacheries– And when he has rebuked them he shall destroy them.” (4 Ezra 12: 32-33.)

“And it shall come to pass in those days that none shall be saved, Either by gold or by silver, And none shall be able to escape. And there shall be no iron for war, Nor shall one clothe oneself with a breastplate. Bronze shall be of no service, And tin shall not be esteemed, And lead shall not be desired. And all things shall be destroyed from the surface of the earth.” (Enoch 5 2: 7-9.)

The Messiah will be the most destructive conqueror in history, smashing his enemies into utter extinction.

(vi) There would follow the renovation of Jerusalem. Sometimes this was thought of as the purification of the existing city. More often it was thought of as the coming down of the new Jerusalem from heaven. The old house was to be folded up and carried away, and in the new one, “All the pillars were new and the ornaments larger than those of the first.” (Enoch 90: 28-29.)

(vii) The Jews who were dispersed all over the world would be gathered into the city of the new Jerusalem. To this day the Jewish daily prayer includes the petition, “Lift up a banner to gather our dispersed and assemble us from the four end?, of the earth.” The eleventh of the Psalms of Solomon has a noble picture of that return.

“Blow ye in Zion on the trumpet to summon the saints, Cause ye to be heard in Jerusalem the voice of him that bringeth good tidings; For God hath had pity on Israel in visiting them. Stand on the height, O Jerusalem, and behold thy children, From the East and the West, gathered together by the Lord, From the North they come in the gladness of their God, From the isles afar off God hath gathered them. High mountains hath he abased into a plain for them; The hills fled at their entrance. The woods gave them shelter as they passed by; Every sweet-smelling tree God caused to spring up for them, That Israel might pass by in the visitation of the glory of their God. Put on, O Jerusalem, thy glorious garments; Make ready thy holy robe; For God hath spoken good for Israel forever and ever, Let the Lord do what he hath spoken concerning Israel and Jerusalem; Let the Lord raise up Israel by his glorious name. The mercy of the Lord be upon Israel forever and ever.”

It can easily be seen how Jewish this new world was to be. The nationalistic element is dominant all the time.

(viii) Palestine would be the centre of the world and the rest of the world subject to it. All the nations would be subdued.

Sometimes it was thought of as a peaceful subjugation.

“And all the isles and the cities shall say, How doth the Eternal love those men! For all things work in sympathy with them and help them…. Come let us all fall upon the earth and supplicate the eternal King, the mighty, everlasting God. Let us make procession to his Temple, for he is the sole Potentate.” (Sibylline Oracles 3: 690 ff.)

More often the fate of the Gentiles was utter destruction at which Israel would exult and rejoice.

“And he will appear to punish the Gentiles, And he will destroy all their idols. Then, thou, O Israel, shalt be happy. And thou shalt mount upon the necks and the wings of the eagle (i.e., Rome, the eagle, is to be destroyed) And they shall be ended and God will exalt thee.

“And thou shalt look from on high And see thine enemies in Gehenna, And thou shalt recognize them and rejoice.” (Assumption of Moses 10: 8-10.)

It was a grim picture. Israel would rejoice to see her enemies broken and in hell. Even the dead Israelites were to be raised up to share in the new world.

(ix) Finally, there would come the new age of peace and goodness which would last forever.

These are the Messianic ideas which were in the minds of men when Jesus came. They were violent, nationalistic, destructive, vengeful. True, they ended in the perfect reign of God, but they came to it through a bath of blood and a career of conquest. Think of Jesus set against a background like that. No wonder he had to re-educate his disciples in the meaning of Messiahship; and no wonder they crucified him in the end as a heretic. There was no room for a cross and there was little room for suffering love in a picture like that.

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Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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